This travelogue centering on a boat trip along India’s sacred Ganges River, shows India at its most colorful, even though the film was shot in black and white. Gopal is the ferryman rowing Italian director Gianfranco Rosi past bathing locals, sightseers on boat tours, ritual water burials, cremations, and people searching the water for items of jewelry that belonged to the deceased. This is the Ganges as the epicenter of India, a place where chaos, surrealism, rituals, life, and death converge.
Major themes such as religion and politics emerge in an almost casual way in short, pithy portraits where tourists and local inhabitants share their thoughts. The subject of the caste system also comes up: despite a myth that champions the occupation of ferryman, this job still rates relatively low in the pecking order.
Confrontational scenes of corpses floating in the water punctuate the lighter anecdotal stories—we learn from an Italian immigrant that the spaghetti here tastes really different. Despite a running time of less than an hour, this aesthetic trip along Mother Ganges and the stories of its admirers manages to evoke the atmosphere and culture of an entire nation.